Halifax Paralympic star Hannah Cockroft speaks about disability becoming a 'taboo'

Great Britain's Hannah Cockroft during the British Athletics Para team launch for the World Para Athletics Championships at the London Stadium.
Great Britain's Hannah Cockroft during the British Athletics Para team launch for the World Para Athletics Championships at the London Stadium.
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She broke through the perceived limitations of disability as a young woman determined to become a sports star.

Affectionately known as Hurricane Hannah, she is no stranger to success and has clinched gold medals from Paralympic games around the globe.

Great Britain's Hannah Cockroft reacts after the Women's T34 100m during day two of the Muller Anniversary Games at The Queen Elizabeth Stadium.

Great Britain's Hannah Cockroft reacts after the Women's T34 100m during day two of the Muller Anniversary Games at The Queen Elizabeth Stadium.

And not content with multiple medals Halifax-born Hannah Cockroft MBE DL was even recognised by royalty.

Yet despite her efforts to act as an advocate for disabled people and their rights, she believes that a brief wave of inclusive optimism spearheaded by the sporting summer of London 2012 has started to fade from memory.

While she told The Yorkshire Post, for its week-long series focusing on social care, that sports opportunities are more common now, she thinks the will for providing essential accessibility equipment for people with reduced mobility in other areas of public life disappears once money needs to be spent.

Ms Cockroft, 26, was born in July 1992 but within 48 hours suffered two cardiac arrests, which resulted in damage to two areas of her brain and left her with deformity to her legs and feet, and weakened hips.

Great Britain's Hannah Cockroft poses with her gold medal from the Women's 400 metres T34 Final.

Great Britain's Hannah Cockroft poses with her gold medal from the Women's 400 metres T34 Final.

But the determined and talented sportswoman fought to remain active and spent formative years in dance and wheelchair basketball classes that forged a pathway for a career in athletics – one which has placed gold medals around the neck of Hurricane Hannah on no less than 20 occasions.

Most of these were at International Paralympic Committee World and European Championships, but it was the London 2012 Paralympic Games – where she took gold in the 100-metre and 200-metre T34 wheelchair races – that seemed to change society’s treatment of people with disabilities for the better.

She said: “I felt it made people a lot more accepted and [made other people] realise we are just normal people.”

But as the focus turned to Rio in 2016, where she took three more golds, things changed in the UK. She thinks children are now unaccustomed to seeing wheelchair users such as herself as the country’s Paralympic legacy – one perhaps best characterised by Channel 4’s ‘We’re the Superhumans’ adverts – disappears.

“Now I can go out in shops and...I’m the first person in a wheelchair they’ve seen,” said Ms Cockroft.

“I just think, we’re in 2019 - how can disability still be that hidden? I think it’s something that’s quite taboo,” adding: “People are not as forward thinking as they were.”

“It wore off as soon as we went to Rio 2016. The London effect lasted from 2012 to Rio 2016. As soon as we got home from Rio, things kind of felt like they were before London.”

This feeling was put to the test in December when she joined Skipton Building Society to highlight the difficulties for disabled people shopping on the high street.

They cited a study of 2,000 adults with some form of mental or physical disability which showed more than four in 10 were unable to visit their local shops because they faced barriers preventing a comfortable shopping experience.

When those polled were asked if they had ever turned back home before finishing their shopping because they found the experience too stressful, 45 per cent of people in Yorkshire said yes. And 27 per cent said it has caused them to have a panic attack.

Main issues included narrow shopping aisles and doorways, too many stairs, crowds of people and changing rooms being too small. It left Ms Cockroft “totally amazed” at the lack of basic access equipment such as ramps, and has made her want to challenge those problems more in future.

“You don’t realise how much of your own life you’re missing out on because you are not challenging it,” she said. “It frustrated me that I just accepted that.”

And she believes the money needed to install the equipment leads businesses to make those decisions.

“People are very quick to jump on the bandwagon” and support causes they are “excited about at the time,” she said.

“As soon as it comes down to money, that is where a lot of people turn their backs.”

Furthermore, such policies do not take into account the amount of money people with disabilities put into local economies, she said. Speaking about opportunity in sport, Ms Cockroft said that access to activities has got better for young disabled people since she was a child.

But it is still difficult – it can cost £5,000 or more for a racing wheelchair, she said.

The problem is for grown-ups, who may become suddenly disabled, and for whom it can be harder to access funding, she said. “We’re professional athletes, [but] what if you had an accident at 25 and needed to find that money?”

Last year, Ms Cockroft took a presenting role on the BBC’s Countryfile show and has had experiences she never pictured before, such as surveying bottle nosed dolphins and going clay pigeon shooting.

When she retires from athletics, Ms Cockroft wants to continue with presenting as her main job, and does not want this to be confined to the sports world.

Ultimately, she said, she would love to host a programme like The Graham Norton Show.

“That would be my dream,” she said. “I just want to try out anything that I can.”